The 2011 season is all but over and the Twins are now faced with where to go for next year. The question is whether they have a core of players that they can build a contender from for next year with some retooling. If they can't, then the alternative is to rebuild for the future beyond next year.
For the Twins to be competitive next year, Mauer and Morneau need to stay relatively healthy and productive. There are plenty of reasons to think that won't happen, but there are plenty of reasons to think it will as well. I think any plan has to assume they will be healthy. If their careers are over, there is going to be a long wait until guys in A ball, like Sano and Hicks, are ready to replace them as the core of a championship team.
Assuming Mauer and Morneau are productive, is it possible to put together the other pieces to be competitive? At catcher, with Mauer as the everyday guy, Butera's defense makes him a solid backup as long as he is limited to 30-40 starts. They have Morneau at first base, but he probably needs to be rested regularly to stay healthy and productive.
The middle infield has two questions and a bunch of answers, most of them not good. Casilla is likely going to take one of the two infield positions. This year's partner, Nishioka, was clearly not ready for the big leagues. It will be interesting to see how he does after a winter off. But it looks like he is likely to be a very expensive utility player, at best.
The other options are Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert. Plouffe has a plus bat at second or shortstop, but its not clear he isn't better suited at a corner outfield spot. Hughes glove might work at second, but again his strength is his bat. I think Tolbert's value is almost entirely his ability to play several positions. Its not clear there is a spot for him if they have Nishioka in the utility role. Dozier, the shortstop this year at AA, is a very longshot to help. The reports are that he is likely more a second baseman than a shortstop, but it appears his bat plays there.
Valencia is going to be back at third base. He is not the star some people thought he was last year. Instead he is a mediocre bat and glove at third base. That would have been fine if he had been batting 8th all year.
It looks like Revere and Span (if healthy) are set for two outfield spots. Cuddyer and Kubel are both free agents. Either one would take the last spot if they are signed during the off-season. Cuddyer seems the more likely signing. His right handed bat, ability to play several positions and clubhouse presence all give him an advantage over Kubel. Kubel is the better hitter.
Jason Repko is a pretty good fourth outfielder who can play all the outfield positions. But with Revere able to backup Span in center field, Repko's glove becomes less important. Tosoni does not look like he is ready yet, but its sometimes surprising what a winter will do for a young player. Plouffe may be the leading contender for right field if he isn't in the infield and none of the free agents return.
Joe Benson will always intrigue fans because of his tools, but his strikeouts at AA are an indication he is not ready to handle major league pitching. Chris Parmelee is another possibility. But he is more first baseman than right fielder. Both probably need AAA seasoning before being tried at the major league level. There really aren't any other outfielders in the system that look like they are going to be everyday major league players.
Thome will likely not be back, regardless of whether the Twins want him or not. Next year's Twins do not look like a sure-ticket to the playoffs.
The Twins have seven potential starting pitchers, Pavano, Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Blackburn, Duensing and Swarzak. They have a couple longshots at AAA in Diamond and Gibson, but neither is likely to start in the rotation next year. With the exception of Pavano and possibly Baker, the other five are all going to have to pitch well in spring training to win a spot.
Capps is a free agent next year. Nathan has a team option, that they might surprise everyone by picking up given his recent performance and their thin bullpen. Perkins and Mijares are likely to return. Its possible Mijares has worn out his welcome, but not likely. I think whether Dumatrait and James are in spring training will depend on whether the Twins need their roster spots to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft. Burnett will likely be in the mix. along with Oliveros, Hoey and Gutierrez. As will Manship, Slama and the losers in the rotation competition.
As always, there are a bunch of longshots who will have a chance to shine in spring training. Delios Guerra has been outstanding in his relief role at AA. Diamond may get another shot. Deinys Suarez, their Cuban refugee, may be given a look as well.
So where does that leave us? Frankly, I think the Twins are at a halfway mark that justifies neither going "all in" nor folding. That means gambling they will get positive answers to questions other than Mauer and Morneau staying healthy.
The first gamble is the starting staff. Without more than one or two starters set, spending a lot of money and/or prospects on filling one more spot with an "ace" doesn't seem to make sense. Instead they need to gamble that guys like Liriano, Baker, Slowey and Blackburn will come through. That is the same gamble they lost this year. But adding one more starter is not going to change the odds that much.
The second gamble is the middle infield. Counting on Casilla for one spot is a gamble in itself. They probably need to add some options for that other spot, whether that means making a trade or signing a veteran free agent.
The third gamble is to bring back both Kubel and Cuddyer, at the right price. It would fill out the outfield and DH slots, provide some depth at first base and solidify the middle of the order. I have never been big fans of either one, but if they lose both those guys, its hard to imagine the team contending. Valencia and Plouffe are not the 5 and 6 hitters on a championship team. If they lose Kubel and Cuddyer, they will have to find replacements.
Count me as skeptical that an aggressive re-working of the team over the off-season will make them contenders. The improvement is going to have to come mostly from within. Staying healthy is an important part of that. But they will also need for some of their young players to step up.